Over the past year he's played Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol and a Nazi officer in Cabaret. Now, cast in the lead as Prospero in Shakespeare's mighty drama The Tempest, actor Chamblee Ferguson steps into the biggest role of his long career at Dallas Theater Center. The Tempest, opening in previews September 9 and running through October 9, marks Ferguson's 31st show at DTC.
It's been a busy summer for the actor. Ferguson and fellow DTC Brierley Acting Company member Sally Nystuen-Vahle were awarded Lunt-Fontanne fellowships at the prestigious Ten Chimneys Foundation in Wisconsin, doing intensive Chekhov studies with Oscar-winning actress Olympia Dukakis. After that Ferguson sent his son Alexander, a budding actor, off to his freshman year at University of Oklahoma. Alexander, a graduate of Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, grew up on the DTC stage, acting with his dad several times. Years ago in A Christmas Carol Alexander played Tiny Tim to Chamblee's Bob Cratchit. In 2009's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Chamblee was Bottom the Weaver and Alexander played Mustardseed.
The Tempest, directed by Kevin Moriarty, opens the season for Dallas Theater Center at the Wyly. Like Moriarty's previous Shakespeare stagings, it's a huge production, with sets and costumes by Tony-nominated designer Beowulf Boritt. The cast includes company members Abbey Siegworth, Lee Trull and Steven Walters, along with Dallas actors Christopher Carlos (on loan from Kitchen Dog Theater), J. Brent Alford, Joe Nemmers, Jerry Russell (founder of Fort Worth's Stage West) and Matthew Tomlanovich. Plano native Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, who recently co-starred in the Broadway revival of A Little Night Music, is back in town to play Ariel. Several SMU acting students are in the show, too.
Between final rehearsals, Chamblee had a few minutes to chat about the challenge of Shakespeare and passing along the "acting bug" to his son.
You're known as a comedy guy, going back to the Dallas improv group the Guava Bomblets in the 1980s. Why the turn to a serious part like Prospero? Chamblee Ferguson: Sometime in late June, Kevin [Moriarty, DTC's artistic director] called and said he wanted me to play Prospero. I kind of freaked out. I was not expecting that. I would've auditioned for the clown roles, Stephano or Trinculo. But he convinced me this is something I need to do. We want to be true to cultivating a company at the Theater Center. I admire all that but I was petrified. I probably didn't start to prepare on it till the end of July.
As a company member, you're tied to DTC for three shows a year, not quite enough to be a full-time job. Blessing or curse? I'd say being a company member is a blessing and a gift. It does make you have to commit to that theater in a way that restricts your work with others. That wouldn't be a bad thing if we were guaranteed 50 weeks a year of work. Since we're only guaranteed three shows, that's not enough to sustain you for a year. Kevin is trying to evolve that and change that so it will be more fulfilling financially. But to be guaranteed three shows at the premier theater in the area is really, really special. For me, it was extra special because if I had an artistic home, this would be the place. I've done more shows here than anywhere else.
Dallas Theater Center seems to be using more local actors and fewer imports. Do you like that? Or is it good to have outsiders bring fresh energy to a company? Ideally, I like it when a majority of the cast is local and a couple of the bigger roles come from somewhere else. We get an infusion of new ideas, vocabulary and energy when people are brought in from elsewhere. That's always really helpful. And professionally it's a great way to connect.
But boy, I really appreciate and cherish the fact that so many more local people are being used. During previous administrations at DTC, it was always the shining castle on the hill that people wanted to work at and basically couldn't. It drove a lot of good artists away.
Your son seems to be following in your profession. Do you like that or did you try to discourage him from entering a tough career path like acting? According to Alexander, he says he's got the bug. He's already been cast in small role in Two Gentleman of Verona at University of Oklahoma. I had tried to prepare him, saying first-semester freshmen almost never get cast. And then he did. He's very happy. I don't know if he has the drive in his belly, the fire inside for acting like I did back then. I do think he's better than I was at that age. If he has patience and does have this drive, he could do very well.
At what age did you feel you were really a good actor? That's a debate I have with myself, not on a daily basis, but on a week-to-week basis. You're only as good as your last role. I think I felt I had a gift for comedy at a fairly young age, I guess when I was in college. I think that kind of grew my confidence. I had a fair amount of experience with improvisational theater with the Guava Bomblets and I was one of the founders of Four-Day Weekend, the improv group in Fort Worth. I felt at a fairly early age I had a good comic sense.
I still feel like I have so much to learn from everyone else around me. I know actors who think they're smarter or funnier than everyone else in the room. I think it's a better place for me artistically to assume that other people are better than me and I have stuff to learn from them. If I think I'm the best, who am I going to learn from?
So talk about The Tempest. What's in it for those of us tired of the Bard? This is the third Shakespeare Kevin has done at DTC [Midsummer in 2009, Henry IV in 2010]. This is the most straight-up Shakespeare that he has done, I can say that. He's basically just streamlined the story. There's been no juggling in order of scenes. There've been no rewrites. It starts out differently with a plane crash [instead of a shipwreck]. But it's going to be pretty true to what Shakespeare's story is.
Do you have a favorite line in the play? The last line. It's over! No, in all honesty, I love the epilogue. It drops Shakespearean pretense. It's honest and simple and truthful.
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Are you dreaming in iambic pentameter now? For some actors, Shakespeare comes easy and I am in awe of those people. For them, they can go from normal conversation to Shakespeare and it's seamless. And then there's the rest of us.
For me it's difficult to learn. I have to spend weeks and weeks memorizing. It does manifest itself in dreams. Sometimes I'm playing other characters in the dream. I wake up humming Ariel's songs in my head. Other times it's really a mesh of everyday life with the play. Maybe only theater people get that.
Dallas Theater Center's The Tempest opens with a pay-what-you-can preview on September 9 at the Wyly Theatre, 2400 Flora St. Tickets are $12 to $25. Call 214-880-0202.